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Georgian Opposition Marks Time, Waits For Biden Visit

Opposition politician Levan Gachechiladze Levan Gachechiladze, who placed second in the January 2008 preterm presidential ballot, met with President Mikheil Saakashvili at the latter's invitation on June 9.
Only some 1,500 people attended a rally in Tbilisi on July 9 to mark three months since the opposition launched an open-ended protest campaign to force President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign, a fraction of the 60,000-plus who turned out on the first day of protests, April 9, and on May 26 to mark the anniversary of Georgia's independence in 1918.

The opposition had hoped 10,000 people would turn out on July 9 to demonstrate their continued commitment to bringing about regime change. But in recent weeks the opposition has suffered a series of setbacks that have compromised individual leaders, perhaps irrevocably. Meanwhile, the authorities continue adamantly to rule out the preterm presidential and parliamentary elections the opposition has called for. Instead, they have regressed from seemingly placatory gestures that the opposition rejected as meaningless to imposing new legal restrictions on opposition parties' activities.

On June 9, two months to the day after the protest got under way, leading opposition politician Levan Gachechiladze, who placed second in the January 2008 preterm presidential ballot, met with Saakashvili at the latter's invitation. Other opposition figures distanced themselves from that meeting, stressing that they did not empower Gachechiladze to negotiate with Saakashvili in the name of the opposition as a whole.

The following day, Saakashvili told a cabinet session that in the course of his talks with Gachechiladze, he floated the idea of offering the "radical" opposition the posts of a deputy interior minister, a deputy justice minister, and a deputy prosecutor, and of allowing representatives of both parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties to attend the weekly sessions of the National Security council.

Eka Beselia, who is secretary-general of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's opposition movement For a United Georgia, rejected the offer of deputy ministerial posts as "unserious." National Forum leader Kakha Shartava similarly termed it inadequate.

But on June 15 -- following clashes between police and opposition supporters outside the state chancellery and the Interior Ministry headquarters in Tbilisi that led to the detention of 39 oppositionists and left several people, including some journalists, injured -- French-born former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, who heads the opposition Georgia's Path party, affirmed publicly during a TV interview her readiness to serve as deputy interior minister. Her courage in doing so should not be underestimated, given that ministry's reputation as being above and beyond the law and guilty of extrajudicial killings. Zurabishvili risked at best being compromised by her mere association with Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, and at worst ending up the latest victim of the death squad that human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari has twice accused the ministry of operating.

Saakashvili, for his part, formally welcomed Zurabishvili's statement, but no formal offer to her ensued. On June 18, the daily "Rezonansi" quoted parliament deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani as saying that the offer was conditional on Zurabishvili quitting politics and no longer attending opposition rallies.

Also on June 18, police again targeted opposition protesters: dozens of police destroyed tents and mock prison cells erected in front of the presidential residence and beat up the picket participants. A police spokesman subsequently denied using force.

Outside Tbilisi, too, the opposition was subjected to increasing pressure and harassment. On June 17, the Alliance for Georgia, comprising the New Rightists, the Republican Party, and former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania's supporters, claimed that 10 of its activists had been arrested in the past few days in Gori and the regional centers of Lanchkhuti, Chokhatauri, Tkibuli, and Adigeni.

One day later, on June 18, Conservative Party general secretary Kakha Kukava said a total of 30 opposition activists had been detained "for political reasons" since the protests began on April 9. By July 9, that figure had reportedly risen to 116.

Saakashvili for his part adduced the June 18 incidents as evidence that the opposition is powerless to constrain him to step down. The TV channel Rustavi-2 on June 19 quoted him as saying that "blocking a few streets in Tbilisi cannot destroy Georgia or force me to resign.... I will not leave the post [of president] during such a crucial period for Georgia."

During the same interview, Saakashvili hinted that with the opposition's consent, he would consider initiating an amendment to the law to enable the 12 oppositionists who were elected to parliament in May 2008 but rejected their mandates to protest the perceived rigging of the election outcome to return to the parliament. Those opposition figures include Gachechiladze; New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze, and fellow New Rightists Mamuka Katsitadze and David Saganelidze; Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri; People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili; and Gubaz Sanikidze (National Forum).

Bringing those opposition politicians back into the legislature, Saakashvili said, would ensure that all sectors of society are represented in the legislature. But that offer proved as unenticing as Saakashvili's earlier offer of deputy ministerial posts. On June 22, Dzidziguri said the opposition's strategy would not change, and that they would continue peaceful protests throughout the summer months.

On June 24, however, the opposition suffered a major blow to its credibility when video footage was posted on YouTube showing Gachechiladze and New Rightists leader Gamkrelidze meeting days earlier in a Berlin hotel with controversial former Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze.

Targamadze, who left Georgia for Russia shortly after Saakashvili's advent to power and became a Russian citizen in August 2005, is widely considered unsavory and corrupt. He was suspected in 1997 of involvement in cigarette and gasoline smuggling, but no criminal charges were ever brought against him, possibly because he enjoyed the unequivocal support of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, who in July 2000 spoke of him as a possible successor. Targamadze stepped down in early November 2001, shortly after the Georgian leadership's spectacularly abortive attempt to co-opt Chechen militants to restore Georgia's hegemony over Abkhazia.

Both Gachechiladze, who had announced days earlier that he planned to travel to Europe in a bid to raise funds for the opposition, and Gamkrelidze admitted immediately that they had indeed met on June 17 with Targamadze, but they denied having discussed financial issues with him. Gamkrelidze did disclose, however, that Targamadze passed on to him "very interesting information" suggesting that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is actively working to keep Saakashvili in power. Predictably, Targamadze for his part told Rustavi-2 he is not in a position to finance the Georgian opposition and that he is not politically engaged. He characterized the Berlin meeting as one with friends whom he had not seen for five years.

The disclosure nonetheless caused consternation and dismay among other opposition parties. Beselia, former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and Conservative leader Kukava all immediately stated that they had not known in advance about the fateful Berlin meeting. Alliance for Georgia head Alasania, who was in the United States when the scandal broke, told journalists in Tbilisi on July 1 that the meeting was a private one, and that he only coordinates political meetings with Gachechiladze and Gamkrelidze. But Alasania also distanced himself from Gamkrelidze, saying the latter "is not and will not become" a member of his party.

The authorities seized upon the video footage as a heaven-sent opportunity to further discredit, and impose additional restrictions on, the opposition alliance.
Saakashvili branded it on June 24 as an attempt by Russian intelligence to use Targamadze to destabilize Georgia.

Speaking in Batumi 10 days later, Saakashvili accused Gachechiladze, Gamkrelidze, and Burjanadze (who met recently in Kyiv with Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk), of "begging Georgia's enemies for money for their political activities."

Then on June 26, pro-Saakashvili parliamentarians threatened to amend legislation on the financing of political parties to preclude an influx of "illegal money" from "abroad," clearly meaning Russia. Even before the Berlin meeting became public knowledge, parliament speaker David Bakradze had responded on June 22 to Gachechiladze's announcement that he would seek funding abroad by calling for stricter regulation of the funding of political parties. Deputy speaker Levan Vepkhvadze of the opposition Christian Democratic Movement countered that the opposition would not have to look abroad for alternative sources of finance if the Georgian authorities did not intimidate businessmen to deter them from becoming engaged in politics.

Those political parties that won parliamentary representation in the May 2008 elections are legally entitled to funds from the Georgian budget, but those subsidies were suspended in April when the opposition launched its drive to force Saakashvili to step down. In addition, a political party can receive a maximum of 100,000 laris ($59,887) annually from a single legal entity and a maximum of 30,000 laris ($17,966) from a single individual. But the law bans political parties from receiving funding from foreign citizens or foreign legal entities.

On June 26, parliament speaker Bakradze said political parties would again receive funds from the state budget after the parliament approved amendments to the 2009 budget, which it did at an emergency session on July 11.

At the same emergency session on July 11, the parliament also passed in the first reading amendments unveiled a week earlier to the legislation on public rallies and demonstrations. Pro-Saakashvili lawmaker Lasha Tordia admitted on July 3 that the amendments were a direct response to the tactics employed by the opposition over the previous three months, in particular the erection of mock prison cells that made streets impassable to traffic. The amended legislation prohibits the "deliberate" and "artificial" blocking of streets either by protesters or by "various types of edifices or objects."

The parliament has also drafted amendments to the law on the police empowering police to fire rubber bullets at protesters, and to the law on administrative offenses, raising from 30 to 90 days the maximum period of detention for blocking the entrance to administrative buildings, or for ignoring orders from the police.

Opposition leaders unequivocally condemned those proposed amendments during a meeting in Tbilisi on July 7 with Western diplomats. Human rights ombudsman Subari termed them "a step backwards into the past," while Burjanadze lambasted them as evidence that "Saakashvili is moving towards establishing a dictatorship."

The opposition ended its picket of Saakashvili's Tbilisi residence on June 25, allegedly in order to avoid the risk of opposition supporters being assaulted or detained. But the following day, three members of youth wing of Conservative Party were assaulted, beaten, taken forcibly to a Tbilisi police station and forced to confess to involvement in the tussle on June 12 between opposition youth activists and parliament security personnel. They were then sentenced to 30 days' detention.

Then on June 29, two listening devices were found in the headquarters of Zurabishvili's party just hours before a scheduled meeting there of opposition leaders.

In short, the opposition is currently probably more fragmented, disunited and demoralized than at any point since the current wave of protests got under way three months ago.

In the wake of the YouTube scandal, Gachechiladze on July 9 announced preparations to launch a political movement of his own, to be named Defend Georgia. Other founding members include prominent novelist Chabua Amiredjibi as honorary chairman; theater director Robert Sturua, and film director Revaz Chkheidze. Gachechiladze said in a written statement that the movement "will work within the constitution and the law to oppose this autocratic regime." Registration of would-be members is to begin on July 13.

Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement for A Just Georgia announced on July 6 that it plans to suspend protests for the summer months and resume in September. Other parties, including For A United Georgia and the Conservative Party, are again looking for ways to mobilize supporters, both in Tbilisi and the provinces. In the short term, the opportunity plans a mass demonstration to coincide with the arrival in Tbilisi in late July of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. It is not yet clear whether opposition leaders will have the chance to meet with Biden during his visit.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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